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Aid convoy enters besieged Syrian town of Madaya

Aid agency says five residents, including a 9-year-old, died of starvation on Sunday when aid convoys had been due to arrive
Aid trucks from the Red Crescent head for Madaya on 11 January 2016 (AFP)

Aid convoys have entered Madaya, a Syrian town where 42,000 residents are under a government siege and are reported to be starving to death, an aid group confirmed on Monday. 

"Two trucks carrying food and two others full of blankets entered Madaya at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT)," an official from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent organisation told AFP.

As Madaya residents waited for the aid trucks to arrive, they stood in the streets, Raed Bourhan, a fixer for journalists and former resident of nearby Zabadani, told Middle East Eye on Monday afternoon.

The drop took longer than anticipated with Bourhan saying the trucks were stopped about 500 metres outside of Madaya for hours as they waiting for separate convoys to reach the Shia-majority towns of Fuaa and Kefraya in northern Syria, which are surrounded by rebel forces and were due to simultaneously receive aid deliveries as part of a deal between the rebels and the government. 

Later on Monday, UN ambassadors said some 400 people must be urgently evacuated from Madaya to receive medical care.

The UN has asked the Syrian government to allow the 400 Syrians to be airlifted out of Madaya, where medical charity MSF says 28 people have starved to death since 1 December.

"They need medical evacuation on an urgent basis tonight and they want permission from the government of Syria to lift those people out," said New Zealand's Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen.

The UN Security Council was meeting behind closed doors to discuss the situation in the besieged areas where residents told AFP they had resorted to eating grass and killing cats to feed themselves.

UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien told the 15-member council that the 400 Syrians were "in a very critical situation," Spanish Ambassador Roman Oyarzun told reporters.

"If they are not evacuated tonight, the situation will be more than dramatic tomorrow," he said.

US Ambassador Samantha Power said "over 400 people are on the brink of death in need of immediate medical evacuation" from Madaya.

On Sunday, when UN and Red Cross convoys had been due to arrive in the rebel-held town near the Lebanese border, five residents including a nine-year-old boy died from starvation, Doctors Without Borders said.

The convoys were delayed by what the Red Cross described over the weekend as logistical problems.

Without food aid for months, residents in Madaya - among 400,000 Syrians in 15 towns that the UN estimates are currently under siege by government, pro-government and rebel forces - have reportedly been forced to eat leaves, pets and insects to stay alive.

The Red Crescent and the UN delivered 44 trucks of supplies to Madaya and 21 trucks for Fuaa and Kafraya. The trucks are carrying food, water, infant formula, blankets and medication for acute and chronic illnesses, as well as surgical supplies.

Local activists say landmines surround the town and that snipers shoot those who try to leave to look for food.

"Everything is gone, they have nothing left at all," Bourhan told Middle East Eye last week. "There is no food, no medicine, no fuel to keep them alive any more." 

"The trees have largely been cut down for firewood and there is no fuel," he said.

Winter weather has exasperated the situation further with heavy snowfall late last week covering much of the mountainous border region. 

"People at least used to pick grass and herbs and eat or boil them but when the snow fell they could no longer even do this," Bourhan added. 

Last Thursday, the Syrian government agreed to allow aid into the town that has been surrounded by the army and Hezbollah fighters since last July.

According to Doctors without Borders, about 20,000 lives are threatened and at least 23 patients in the health centre supported by the aid group have starved to death since December. They included children and the elderly, the organisation said.

Syria's envoy to the United Nations on Monday dismissed as fabrications reports that civilians were dying of starvation in Madaya. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari spoke after the aid convoy entered the town.

"Actually, there was no starvation in Madaya," Jaafari told reporters at UN headquarters. 

"The Syrian government is not and will not exert any policy of starvation on its own people."

Jaafari charged that journalists reporting on the starvation from Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera and the Saudi-backed Al-Arabiya television networks were "mainly responsible for fabricating these allegations and lies."

The UN Security Council met behind closed doors late Monday to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in besieged Syrian towns behind closed doors on Monday, although no decision is expected. The meeting was requested by Spain and New Zealand.

Syria's conflict erupted with anti-government protests in March 2011 but quickly evolved into a multi-sided war that has killed 260,000 people and forced millions from their homes.